Abortion Accessibility: The quieter, systemic ways Canada puts up barriers to abortion

In light of Roe v. Wade, we must continue to advocate for abortion equity in Canada

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black and white photo of a pro-abortion protestor holding a sign that says “my body, my choice.”
Canadians still aren’t guaranteed hassle-free access to abortion. Photo: Duané Viiljoen / Pexels

By Kelly Chia, Humour Editor

On May 2, POLITICO released a leaked draft majority opinion revealing the US Supreme Court had provisionally voted in favour of overturning Roe v. Wade. By striking down the landmark case, the Court will delegate abortion rights — and restrictions — to the states. It is no exaggeration to say that this decision will have immediate and devastating consequences for people who can get pregnant. The Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research group, notes that 23 states already have laws either banning or challenging the legal status of abortion. In fact, 13 states have laws in place that ban most abortions if Roe v. Wade is overturned. 

Scary doesn’t even begin to cover the inhumanity of a decision that undermines the autonomy of people seeking abortions. It also draws our attention to the state of abortion in Canada. 

In Canada, abortion is legal, and there are no laws restricting abortions, but it isn’t a constitutionally guaranteed right, either. R. v. Morgentaler decriminalized abortion in 1988. The ruling found that criminalizing abortion would violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for people who could get pregnant. 

But by not having federal legislation that ensures accessibility to abortion, provinces can still refuse to fund the services because abortion is managed under provincial regulations. Lack of funding becomes more likely because abortion isn’t always considered a “medically necessary” service, as opposed to an elective procedure, by federal lawmakers. This means that abortion services and accessibility are disparate in Canada. 

In New Brunswick, there are only three hospitals performing abortions, restricting a large portion of the province from accessing safe abortions. In fact, up until 2016, Prince Edward Island did not offer any legal abortion services. A report on abortion services in Canada from Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights suggests there are numerous barriers to abortion accessibility across the country: lack of abortion providers, hospitals needing referrals from other doctors (despite abortion being a time-sensitive issue), and individual discrimination based on a patient’s race, sex, gender, age, and more. Lack of clinics means people face long wait times, which only adds to an already-stressful situation for a pregnant person seeking an abortion. Other compounding issues, like systemic racism towards Indigenous women in healthcare, mean patients may assume that it would be risky for them to visit a hospital. There is no abortion clinic in Canada providing abortion care beyond 24 weeks

Lack of abortion access in Canada may mean patients seeking an abortion would need to travel to the United States to get services. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, this would further limit the bodily autonomy of pregnant Canadians because it will become much more difficult for them to access the services they need. 

We shouldn’t face barriers to a medically necessary service. Unfortunately, we don’t have any guarantee that our leaders consider it essential. CBC notes that the Liberal party campaigned on passing regulations under the Canada Health Act to fund and protect abortion as a necessary medical service. They’ve yet to follow through. 

We need to be vigilant to protect and advocate for our rights to abortion at all stages, because while R. v. Morgentaler is active, it has been challenged before. This means voting for parties who campaign on protecting sexual and reproductive rights and education, and advocating for open access to abortion care. We as Canadians need to strike while the iron is hot and insist, upon pain of electoral defeat, that our leaders live up to their word and codify abortion into Canadian law. It’s the only way to make sure that Canada becomes safer and healthier for people who can be pregnant.